Thursday, 5 December 2013

The news where you are

I reviewed 'Mr Lynch's Holiday' only last week but I felt bad that I had managed to completely miss Catherine O'Flynn's second book, 'The news where you are', and so I procured it from the library. Like 'What Was Lost' this book is set in Birmingham and has other little touches in common: Mo, Frank's daughter, provides us with a child's view of the situation, and the impact of the built environment figures significantly, from the landmark buildings that are Frank's father's legacy to the city, to the impersonal and lifeless housing estate that they come across by the canal, and is home to Phil's widow Michelle. This book is also similarly a mystery; why is Phil out jogging in the dark, where is Mikey and who is driving the car that comes out of the darkness?

Our Frank is an unassuming man who just wants to be good at his job and a good husband and a good dad and a good son. He sometimes feels like he struggles to be any of these. After, Phil, his predecessor as anchorman at the local TV station, moves on to bigger and better things Frank finds himself inheriting not only a job but a Cyril, the enigmatic little man who writes Phil's gags. While Frank struggles to deal with his mother, Maureen, who is determined to live a miserable old age, and discovering that one of the last buildings his father designed is about to be demolished, he has also been pursuing a morbid fascination with some forgotten deaths. It began with a woman who dies and who's death is not discovered for some time, and Frank begins to take on a personal interest in those unloved and unnoticed souls who's departure goes unremarked. This is what leads him to find Mike, and to start drawing together the threads of a long neglected friendship. 

It is what I like about Catherine O'Flynn that her characters are all so very ordinary, and with normal human weaknesses; they are annoying, they get bored or irritated with each other, they are vain, they fail to communicate, they are lonely. They are nothing special, just like people you might come across in everyday life, and she makes you care about what happens to them, because she takes the little trials of people's lives, which are important only to them, and makes us care, and thus makes our own trials seem somehow more important. The stories are also peopled with such a lovely variety of small characters, from Julia, Franks' co-worker, who really wants to be considered a serious journalist, to Irene, Phil's first wife who turns out to be living along the hall from Frank's mum at 'Evergreen'. Somewhat like 'What Was Lost' the people are often broken or lonely or insecure; Frank's father is too wrapped up in his work to worry or care much about his family, Mikey had recently lost his wife, Phil is obsessively anxious about becoming old and irrelevant. Although there is a little glimmer of hope in the end, when Maureen finds a little light in her life at the seaside, it is quite a sad book, not tragic, just quietly sad about people's inability to connect with each other:

"After she'd gone he drank the coffee and thought about what she'd said. He looked at the face in the photo. Had Michael really hoped for the gentle fall of other deaths and other stories to cover his quickly and soundlessly, to be lost forever in that endless layering of beginnings and ends? Every day at work Frank added more news, more facts, more faces to the vast multi-layered mosaic of the city and amidst all this Michel was an empty space. It was always the gaps that drew Frank's attention. They seemed to matter more than the other pieces." (p.112)

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